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Feb 25 2013

Is It Wrong To Help Someone Cheat?

A while ago, a great blog called Polyskeptic had a post about the ethics of helping someone else cheat. Dan Savage had said on an episode of his podcast that it’s definitely not okay, and Wes of Polyskeptic disagreed.

Wes brings up some good points about what exactly is wrong with cheating, and it’s not the sex itself:

The poly community has, shall we say, an unconventional view of cheating. We tend to say that the problem with cheating isn’t the sex, it’s the lying. There’s nothing inherently wrong with having sex with a person in a relationship. The problem is that when a monogamous person cheats, they are being dishonest with their partner. The harm is caused by the betrayal, not by the sex.

The problem with the standard advice is that, once the proposition has been made, the harm has already been done. By turning down the proposition, you’re turning a cheater into merely an attempted cheater. Is that really any better? To my mind, it is not. When someone attempts to cheat, the betrayal has already occurred.

He goes on to say that simply refusing to help the person cheat is not in itself morally good unless you also inform their partner that they propositioned you, because the harm has already been done by the proposition itself. But people have no moral obligation to protect others’ relationships, and since helping the person cheat wouldn’t make the situation any worse than it already is, you might as well do it.

Dan Savage’s preferred option – rejecting the cheater – is premised on the idea that you have a responsibility for the health and quality of that relationship. As I’ve explained above, rejecting the cheater is, at best, not helping the relationship, and at worst harming the relationship. If you accept that you have a responsibility for that relationship (what I call the “be a hero” option), the only moral choice is to inform the cheater’s partner (or at least make reasonable efforts to do so). Any other choice makes you an accomplice to fraud. If you truly think you have an obligation to that relationship (which I don’t think that you do), your obligation must be to ensure that it isn’t being conducted under false pretenses.  Otherwise, you’re helping the cheater to hide their cheating.

It’s an interesting argument, but ultimately I disagree.

First of all, for many monogamous people, wanting to cheat is not at all the same thing as actually cheating. Back when I was monogamous and thought about this sort of thing a lot, I knew that even though I would be really hurt if my boyfriend tried to cheat but wasn’t able to, I would be even more hurt if he tried to cheat and actually did. It’s not really logical, but for some people it really is about the sex.

Somewhat similarly, there are plenty of poly folks who are completely fine with their partner(s) seeing other people but nevertheless don’t want to know when they’re having sex with someone else, or even who those people are, because it’s unpleasant for them to hear about and makes them feel jealous. So it’s completely possible to be okay with the fact that your partner slept with someone else, but not necessarily with the knowledge that they actually did.

Second, Wes’ argument presumes that being rejected in an attempt to cheat can never be an illuminating or transformative experience for someone, that the person will just shrug and carry on trying to find another person to cheat with. That’s not necessarily the case. Sometimes you fall for someone else, ignore the problems in your current relationship, pursue a fantasy in your mind with this new person, and finally try to cheat with them. Being told “no” can be a wake-up call that causes you to realize that you want to stay committed to your current partner, that you need to work on your relationship with them, or that you need to leave them.

Of course, sometimes it doesn’t work that way. Some people never do develop that self-awareness. But if I had a chance to help someone develop it by not helping them cheat on their partner, I’d take it.

The idea that refusing to help someone cheat without informing their partner about the proposition is harmful is also strange to me. If you’re an “accomplice to fraud” if you don’t cheat with them, how are you not one if you do cheat with them? While informing their partner would arguably be a more “moral” option than just doing nothing, it also overrides the couple’s right to conduct their relationship without your interference. And, yes, it’s too much effort for most people to do even if they wanted to. How would you even get the person’s partner’s contact info?

Whether or not it’s ethically wrong to help someone cheat, there are tons of reasons it’s at least practically a bad idea. If someone’s willing to betray someone’s trust, they’re probably also willing to lie to you about STIs and birth control, for instance. And although you may not be pursuing a monogamous relationship with this person (at least, hopefully not, since they’re with someone else), even casual, open arrangements can involve violations of trust. That’s why even poly folks tend to have such a thing as “cheating.”

In any case, I can’t quite agree with the view that other people’s relationships are absolutely not your responsibility and that if you happen to participate in fucking up someone’s relationship, it doesn’t matter because it’s not your job to preserve people’s relationships. Obviously you don’t carry nearly as great a responsibility for other people’s commitments than the people who have made those commitments, and obviously helping someone cheat isn’t nearly as wrong as cheating, but the idea that we’re all just individual little islands and carry no obligations to each other seems way too libertarian for me.

Personally–and you don’t have to agree with me or do the same thing–if someone asked me to help them cheat, I would say no, and I would strongly urge them to either ask their partner for an open relationship or think about what’s causing them to want to cheat. I would urge them to do that, and that’s it. I wouldn’t play counselor or mediator, I wouldn’t look up their partner on Facebook and let them know what happened. This would be my way of trying to leave the world and these two people in a slightly better state than I found them.

21 comments

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  1. 1
    smrnda

    I think another problem is that the idea that it’s your responsibility to inform the would-be cheater’s partner is that it’s assuming that you actually have some means of communicating with them. If some acquaintance walks up to me and says “So, I’m in a relationship but would you be interested in a hook up?” I might not even know the name of their partner. It happens. Is it my job to play detective and find out, and then find out their contact information so I can alert them that their partner made an attempt at cheating?

    1. 1.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      I agree, and I feel like that’s actually the reason why Wes completely dismisses the idea that one should necessarily refrain from helping someone cheat. Since refraining is, to him, morally useless unless you also inform the person’s partner of what they’ve done, and doing that is usually impossible, you might as well hook up with them (if, of course, that’s what you feel like doing).

      But obviously I disagree with that premise, so I have no issue with the concept of refusing to help someone cheat for ethical reasons but then not informing their partner.

  2. 2
    Kate Donovan

    While I ultimately agree, as you know, like smrnda, I see a complication. To that end, I think a tweet-length alteration to your premise would be “*if* you know that a person is in a relationship, it is partially your responsibility to encourage them to not cheat–or at the very least, not cheat with you.”

    1. 2.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      Yes! That was kind of a presumption in both my post and Wes’ (and Dan Savage’s podcast, because that is what the question was about).

  3. 3
    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    I don’t think the theory on what creates the harm is actually the lying. Obviously lying to your partner is wrong. But there’s a separate harm: breaking your word. You and Wes seem to both conflate post-facto lying with breach-of-promise.

    Breaking your word is also a bad thing. While some people argue that you shouldn’t “play the field” or date without committing to monogamy (as opposed to creating a true partnership that is non monogamous), many people are willing to say that if you don’t ever tell people that you’re being romantically exclusive, you don’t have a responsibility to be exclusive. Many more, almost certainly constituting a large majority (though I don’t know that for sure) would be included in those not finding a responsibility if you *actively advise* someone that you will not act exclusively.

    I think both groups are coming from the same place, but one says that as a practical matter, people do assume a commitment exists without either/both parties making such a promise explicitly: in that case, the argument is, you have to act as if a promise exists where such a promise would frequently or normally be assumed, even if you haven’t made it, because the consequences emotionally are the same whether you breach a promise that your partner believes exists because you explicitly made it, or whether you breach a promise that your partner believes exists because cultural leads them to expect that one exists.

    If someone propositions someone for an activity which, if it occurs, would breach a promise, the second person can evade complicity by simply declining to participate. If the first person is lying about whether or not such propositioning occurs, the second person might be complicit *if* that second person is aware of the other party, the promises involved, and the lies being used to conceal the attempted breach.

    Some people believe that we can assume what promises exist between other couples and that lies are used when a monogamously partnered person propositions someone. In that case, it would seem that Wes is right and complicity exists the moment the proposition takes place because we know or should know.

    You are correct that we don’t necessarily know, and therefore complicity does not so quickly attach.
    ======================

    But say that you do know both parties in a partnership and have been made aware that they are sexually exclusive in regards to an activity that is explicitly proposed by one party without the other party present.

    At this point, do you have any responsibility to the person you know?

    …if yes, it’s probably b/c you assume future lying (or hear about lying that conceals the proposition)
    …if no, once you have specific knowledge of a lie to conceal the proposition, do you THEN have a responsibility to the non-present party?

    I tend to think the exact circumstances matter, but would definitely be likely to find it morally praiseworthy (but not morally obligatory) to communicate about the known lie(s).

    But Wes is right that there is a danger in taking responsibility for others. This is one of the reasons why I would shy strongly away from finding an obligation.

  4. 4
    cswella

    Just a question here, a situation which I am involved in:

    My friend is currently in a sexual relationship with another friend who is married. I know everyone involved with this story. The person cheating is (1), and the partner is (2).

    The couple got married right out of high school, so quite young. They’ve been married for about 6 years, and there’s been friction between them. (2) was in a family where they never had responsibilities, and thus getting married out of high school, (2) transferred the dependence to (1). Can’t keep a job, doesn’t want to participate in anything more than 2-3 hobbies, and hasn’t contributed to the general well-being of the house/relationship. (1) was raised in a family where they were taking care of the family because the father had out-of-state jobs, and the mother had breast cancer. So (1) was used to taking care of everyone, so much so that (1) learned to love cooking and is going to school to be a chef. But they don’t get along, (2) is clingy and blind to their issues, and (1) is sick of constantly being the only contributor. (2) is not passionate and has developed hygiene issues since getting married. (2) also has a history of emotional abuse, threatening suicide if (1) ever left.

    Then about 5 months ago, we met them, and my friend hit it off with (1). They have alot of the same interests and (1) has told me that discovering my friend has been the trigger for (1) to get out of the marriage. They started sleeping together about 2 months ago. Since my friend is my best friend, x/he confided in me about the entire thing, and I have since been involved with discussions with (1) as well. My friend rents from me, so it’s hard not to notice (1) sleeping over. It has been rough because (2) has gotten worse, to the point of stealing (1)’s car and putting tracking apps on (1)’s phone. The kicker is (1) suspects strongly that (2) kept attempting to have sex with (1) at night while (1) was sleeping, in an attempt to have a baby between them, so as to lock them together.

    My question is this: I realize the moral issue with lying/breaking a promise to a spouse. And I recognize that this entire issue could have been handled better. What is the opinion of anyone who wishes to voice it, to this situation? I am involved at the behest of my friend and (1), and because I want to help someone stuck in an abusive relationship. For someone like (2), they aren’t aware of the cheating, but despite calls to (2)’s parents in an attempt at psychiatric care and/or family help, (2) refuses to improve.

    And, because the outcome is someone leaving an abusive relationship, is the lying part at least in part justified? My friend did it for sexual reasons, but was (1) justified in finding the first escape by cheating?

    1. 4.1
      leftwingfox

      I’m only speaking for myself here. I completely understand the impulse to cheat when in an abusive relationship. I don’t know if the friend “helping” (1) cheat, improves the ability to escape the real problem of the abusive relationship with (2), especially if there’s any personal sense of guilt, shame or self-recrimination involved in the adultery which may be harming (1)s ability to make the break.

  5. 5
    Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar

    There’s an assumption there in Wes’s argument that you can somehow get involved in someone’s cheating and somehow not really be involved in the harm of the cheating because you don’t have any explicit obligation to the person being cheated on. I think that’s a huge load of BS, because I think we all carry an implicit obligation to not cause other people unnecessary harm whether we know them or have any sort of formal or informal social contract with them. If you’re complicit in the cheating, you’re complicit in the harm caused, especially when you’re doing it to get some pleasure for yourself.

    And I have a deep distrust of people who lead off with a “X community has, shall we say, an unconventional view of Y.” It is very often going to be followed by a justification for some ethically questionable behavior. There’s a thing in certain communities where there’s an understandable resistance to being “judgmental”(usually misspelled) because outsiders are already unfairly judging them, which is fine but is often exploited by people who lack a moral compass.

    1. 5.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      And I have a deep distrust of people who lead off with a “X community has, shall we say, an unconventional view of Y.” It is very often going to be followed by a justification for some ethically questionable behavior.

      I think the issue here is that Wes might be misconstruing polyamory somewhat. It’s not that polyamory has an “unconventional view” of cheating; it’s that it has an unconventional view of relationship boundaries. Cheating is wrong both for poly folks and for monogamous folks, and cheating means the exact same thing for both: stepping outside the boundaries of the relationship that you have agreed upon with your partner(s). The difference is that monogamous people tend to agree upon relationships in which they cannot have sex with other people, and poly people tend to agree upon relationships in which they can have sex at least with certain other people, if not all other people. Even for monogamous people, though, the definitions of cheating can vary, as I’ve discussed before.

      So I definitely understand and share your discomfort with that statement, and I think the statement itself is misleading.

  6. 6
    loofasword

    I’m not buying the idea that refusing to cheat but not informing the partner is in itself wrong. It can be extremely difficult to tease out the extent to which we owe “a duty of care” to people we are not directly involved with. But I see that argument as a deflection of real ethical responsibilities. Let’s agree that we’ve zeroed in on the idea that “cheating” is (as Crip Dyke puts it) “breaking our word”, and doesn’t really have to do with the sex.

    I don’t agree that we can categorically decide whether or not informing the partner is a necessary act. As a couple of people have pointed out, what if we don’t know the partner, or even how to get in touch with hir? What if we do know hir? I don’t see a simple heuristic to determine what would be ethically correct in all circumstances.

    But that doesn’t mean deciding to cheat is ethically neutral.

    If A wants to cheat on B with me, but if I wouldn’t cheat on my partner were I in a similar relationship, then I actually do have an ethical obligation—to myself—not to cheat, whether or not I inform the third party. Unless we have obligation to actually act consistently with our own principles (not buying that). And while I don’t think I have a universal obligation to inform B, if I do cheat with A, when B finds out, I will have contributed to harming B. Not participating in an action that violates my own ethics and would also cause harm to a third party seems like a pretty compelling and ethically consistent reason for not doing that thing.

    So no, I think it would be wrong of me to cheat on B with A, even if I had no intention of ever informing B were I to refuse.

    Hope I haven’t stepped in a steaming pile of obvious with this.

  7. 7
    Ann

    Personally I don’t believe I am ethically responsible for anyone else’s relationship. My relationship and my boundaries within it are my responsibility. I would view with extreme skepticism the motives of anyone who felt it necessary to “inform” on my partner.

    I think the discussion of harm with regards to the cheating and/or informing is more complicated. Most therapists working with an individual who is trying to work on a relationship after having cheated will ask the cheater to think very carefully about why they would inform their partner that it had happened. Typically that telling a partner isn’t for the partners benefit, it’s for the cheater. The cheater can then absolve themselves of the guilt by having confessed and the partner is left with the pain and struggle of having to accept and move on, or be the bad guy and tell them that it’s over.

    Being a friend who knows about the cheating places you in a precarious position in this regard and I think you have to recognize that. Assuming you know both parties, if the cheating itself could lead to direct health issues (ie the cheater is engaging in risky behavior and you know it) then informing the other party is reasonable and responsible. If not, you are stepping into a minefield and involving yourself in what is a very intimate part of someone else’s life. To me it’s not so different from telling someone how to raise their children. It’s nosy and pushy. Cheating is not a simple thing itself. Sometimes leaving a relationship is just not possible. Cheating may enable the partners to actually engage constructively in cases where financial or family issues prevent dissolution. It may that both partners turn a blind eye willingly and that there is an agreement that you know nothing about. In which case you’ve done no favors to anyone by informing.

    Basically I think the attitude that we should all police each other’s relationships is nosy, hurtful and ultimately unreasonable. Hold to your own ethics regarding cheating within your partnership and should someone else approach you. But save the judgement for yourself or your own partner. You rarely know all the facts and it’s never as simple as “cheating is bad”.

  8. 8
    WellYesYouMay (@WellYesYouMay)

    To me, there’s a big difference between declining to actively help someone (or their relationship), and actively participating in harming it. I may not have a moral obligation to help or police someone’s relationship, but as an ethical person I’m not going to actively engage in behavior that will hurt it either. Note the term active. If their partner hits on me, I’m being inactive. If I take them up on it, I’m being active. I’m making the choice.

  9. 9
    Stephanie Zvan

    The problem with the standard advice is that, once the proposition has been made, the harm has already been done. By turning down the proposition, you’re turning a cheater into merely an attempted cheater. Is that really any better? To my mind, it is not. When someone attempts to cheat, the betrayal has already occurred.

    So I should be fine eating that nonsustainable fish because the fishing has already occurred. I should be fine wearing those blood diamonds because there exploitation of the country has already occurred. I should be fine taking stolen money because the theft already occurred.

    That’s fascinating moral reasoning, that is.

  10. 10
    Ysanne

    I’ve been in all 3 of the mentioned roles, and I think a lot of this discussion kind of misses an important aspect: Cheating in a relationship is not a random thing that one just decides to do, after which one goes up to an arbitrary person and asks them for sex. (Ok, maybe the people I know are just very unrepresentative — if anyone knows stats and I’m wrong here, please correct me!) It’s more along the lines of “one person finds another attractive to the point that they try to initiate sexual contact, even though one of them is in a relationship with someone else”, and in the situation discussed above, it’s the person in a relationship who does the initiating, and the attraction that would lead to cheating is quite specific to the propositioned person.
    Turning down the proposition doesn’t mean that the cheating will now happen with some other random person — depending on the way it is done, it can even help the prospective cheater sort out his existing relationship with their partner. Dobbing to the partner may contribute positively to this sometimes, but mostly it does nothing but interfere with any sorting-out, plus hurt the partner.
    Personally, I don’t think that anyone has any business pushing their ideals of absolute honesty and how to run a relationship on other people, so I’d go for “dob only if you are reasonably certain that this does more good than harm”.
    Oh, and when the propositioned person says “yes”? Then they’re usually also attracted and the question of morality wrt. other people’s relationships has a very low priority, and any “moral justification” is more rationalisation than actual reasoning.

    1. 10.1
      Ysanne

      Obviously, when I wrote “sort out his relationship”, this was meant to be a “their”.

  11. 11
    maudell

    There are so many ways to view this argument. Personally, I think there is a moral “wrong” to hooking up with someone in a monogamous relationship, but that the ultimate responsibility rests on the cheater. My knee-jerk reaction was to agree with Wes, because I am allergic to the “blame the woman” argument that seems to be quite common. In fact, when I read comments on Dan Savage’s blog, there is a huge trend in this sense:
    Q-A) a woman writes about having sex with a married man. Comments: Slut! Homewrecker! Succubi! (not much about the guy)
    Q-B) a man writes about having sex with a married woman. Comments: She’s a deceiving c*ck carrousel rider! She must be swarming with std’s! You shouldn’t touch such an evil self-centred woman! (guy excused for his guyness)
    [ok, I paraphrase, they don't usually use MRA language on SLOG]

    I am so tired of these arguments that I overcompensate instead. But I think you are correct that there is a certain moral obligation not to take part in someone else’s cheating.

    On the “personal experience” side, I was twice told by men they had a girlfriend *after* the sex. Both were guys that I knew for a few months, but who “forgot” to tell me. I was so pissed off, I thought that was just disrespectful of everyone involved. So I guess I still have a moral alarm sounding in being an unwilling participant in cheating (plus, of course, the deception that tainted my decision to sleep with them)

  12. 12
    rilian

    It’s not my problem whether someone is “cheating”, whatever that would mean for their particular relationship. I’m not involved in that promise/agreement.

    If a person they’re cheating on is a friend of mine, I might just be ruining my friendship, but I still don’t find it morally wrong. Actually, I don’t even find cheating morally wrong — you’re just ruining your relationship, which are free to do.

    1. 12.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      Can’t you ruin it by communicating well and telling the person that you no longer want to be exclusive/in a relationship?

      1. 12.1.1
        rilian

        Yeah, you *can*, and I would find that the responsible, kind choice. But I don’t think you have a moral obligation to do it that way.

        1. 12.1.1.1
          Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

          Arguably we don’t have a moral obligation to do anything other than refrain from killing each other and abusing/neglecting our children.

          But that doesn’t mean that certain choices aren’t more in line with an individual’s view of morality than others. I would say that making choices that are more responsible and kind than the alternatives is part of being a moral person for me, and if I started consistently making choices without any regard for that, I’m not sure I could see myself as moral anymore.

  13. 13
    Dark Jaguar

    I agree with all of that, except that reporting it to the significant other in the relationship “overrides their right to conduct it without your interference”. This suggests that there is some right to “stay ignorant” of something that you transgress. It puts the wishes of the cheater in a reserved place above that of the other person in the relationship, as if to say it is MORE important not to betray the one that attempted to cheat than it is to not betray the person who’s trust was violated. No, I would say that it can be a tough decision at the best of times to decide whether or not to report the incident to the other person, but if you do, I would be shocked if that person, upon hearing the news, told you to mind your own business. (And I should mention that the incident BECAME your business when the attempted cheater propositioned you.)

    While I disagree with that part, I VERY disagree with the opponent’s notion that “you aren’t helping anyone out by refusing, so why not just do it?” That argument actually comes off as a line a sleaze bag would use to try and coerce someone into sex, not as a legitimate argument. One reason why not? Maybe that person’s just not into you. Sheesh, “do it because you aren’t helping anyone by refusing” just comes off as the sort of thing a cheater would argue in the heat of the moment.

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